In 1989, Bonnie Raitt was newly sober and newly signed to Capitol Records. At 39, the blues singer and guitarist was a respected veteran of the California music scene with eight albums under her belt, two of them having gone gold. Her closest brush with mainstream success had come from a 1977 remake of Del Shannon’s Runaway that reached No. 57 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Having worked with Don Was on a version of Stay Awake for a compilation of Disney-movie songs, Raitt entered the studio with the producer to cut her first album for Capitol.
“Nick of Time isn’t that much of a reinvention of what I did before, it’s just a better version,” Raitt says of the album that would become her commercial breakthrough and yield the hit singles Thing Called Love and Have a Heart, as well as its title track. “I was very clear-headed. My spirit was rejuvenated after the heartbreak of being dropped and having a romantic love affair fall apart in the mid-’80s.”
Nick of Time, released in March 1989, peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard albums chart before winning three Grammys, including album of the year, and shooting to No. 1 a year after its release. It wound up selling 5 million copies.
“It has such emotional meaning for me, that record, because it represented such a shift in my life,” Raitt says. “It was an astonishing comeback for me after a rough period of time. I sing so many of those songs every night, and I’m proud of how they held up.”
This week, Capitol Records released a 180-gram vinyl reissue of Nick of Time to commemorate its 25th anniversary. Raitt, now 64, recently spoke with USA TODAY and reflected on each track of her breakthrough album.
Nick of Time (Songwriter: Raitt)
“The song will always mean a lot to me, because it rang so true for me personally. I wasn’t expecting it to be the cornerstone that made the album get liftoff.
“At the time, I went out in the woods to write Nick of Time, I had this funky drum machine called a Drumatix. It had built-in sounds, like the syn-drum sound from Entertainment Tonight. I was looking for a Philadelphia Soul beat, and the only thing that came with it was that.
“Ricky Fataar, a genius drummer who has been with me for years and is a talented producer, as well, took that track on my demo and found something in there he thought we should add. So he put a sandbag, like you’d put in a kick drum to hold the mic up, on his belly and miked it, then he played that signature heartbeat sound that’s on Nick of Time that made it intimate.”
Thing Called Love (John Hiatt)
Thing Called Love was our first single. It might have been the first thing we cut, actually.
“I knew MTV probably wouldn’t play a 40-year-old woman. Thank God VH1 was starting out. I called on my friend Dennis Quaid, who was in the middle of making the Jerry Lee Lewis movie. I said, ‘Dennis, I want to show people a different kind of sexual playfulness, some heat that doesn’t involve putting your underwear on the outside of your clothes or bumping and grinding.’ I needed a foil in the video, because I needed somebody to sing to. He agreed to do it, and it made all the difference.
“I was a good enough businesswoman to know that if Dennis was in the video, there would be more likelihood that VH1 would play it. That was one of the things that helped the record get started.”
Love Letter (Bonnie Hayes)
“I moved to the Bay Area in the ’90s, right around Nick of Time. Through my connections to the publishing company that handled Huey Lewis and Ray Benson, they also did Bonnie Hayes. Bonnie was kind of a legend in the Bay Area. Her brother, Chris Hayes, played with Huey Lewis & the News, and Kevin Hayes was the drummer with Robert Cray for many years. Bonnie had her own band, called Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo, which was kind of a new-age band up here. She was a singer-songwriter with a decent following. She was making news for herself as a songwriter, as well.”
Cry on My Shoulder (Michael Ruff)
“I’m a big fan of Michael Ruff’s. At the time, he was doing regular gigs in L.A., where the musicians would go and hang out. He was a solo artist, as well as playing with Rickie Lee Jones and a bunch of other people in the studio. I asked David Crosby and Graham Nash if they would come and sing on it. I couldn’t hear anybody else’s voices but theirs. It’s an absolutely exquisite tune.”
Real Man (Jerry Lynn Williams)
“Jerry Williams was one of the most revered people among blues-rock players like Eric Clapton, Delbert McClinton and a whole slew of people who came out of Texas. Jerry was legendary and had a terrific album on Warner Bros. that went nowhere. In musician circles, among people that loved Tulsa and Texas music, he was a legendary guitar players and songwriters.
“His own demo of this song was so hellacious, I didn’t think we could do it justice. The only person that could play on it was Larry, and he came out and played on it.”
Nobody’s Girl (Larry John McNally)
“Larry John McNally is another great songwriter that went under the radar. He had an album on Columbia years ago, and I just loved his voice and his guitar playing. Ironically, we cut the song with myself and the guitar. I think by the time we overdubbed the bass on it, I had redone my guitar. The only thing left from the original session as the vocal and the tape. We kept on replacing everything. That one was a really evocative sound.”
Have a Heart (Hayes)
“I was knocked out by Have a Heart, which ended up being a single. I rarely hear a song and know immediately that I’m going to do it, but those two I did, right off the bat. I’m a big fan of Bonnie’s writing. She’s now the chair of songwriting at Berklee College of Music, when she’s not doing her own music.”
Too Soon to Tell (Rory Michael Bourke/Mike Reid)
“Mike Reid went on to give me one of the songs I will always be remembered for, his tune with Allen Shamblin, I Can’t Make You Love Me. He has since written an opera. He’s an incredibly versatile guy. And so humble. He’s got one of the most beautifully self-effacing personalities. I’m not sure he’s got that show-business thing, which is one reason I love him so much.
“I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like. We see each other when I play Nashville, and I saw him at the Grammys recently.
I Will Not Be Denied (Williams)
“There’s a pounce to I Will Not Be Denied. There’s a seething response to that that is all-purpose for anything you’re upset about. I Will Not Be Denied had a tremendous release for me, releasing a lot of the anger and frustration I had, and being on the other side. It’s not just about sobriety, it’s about all the changes and healing that happened, healing from a broken heart and coming out of a dark period. It wasn’t all about addiction, it was a just a rough situation.
“I Will Not Be Denied is an ace that I pull out when I’m feeling particularly … oh, I don’t know. It’s got a sensual punch to it, some dark stuff. It does the job really well when you’re feeling a certain way.”
I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again (David Lasley/Julie Lasley)
“That song had been lying around for a long time. I’d been waiting to find the exact right album to put it on and the right maturity. But I always knew I was going to sing it. My first choice (to accompany me) was Herbie Hancock, and he said yes. That was a real stretch for me and a real delight. We did a couple takes only, because it’s such an emotionally wrenching song.”
The Road’s My Middle Name (Raitt)
“You’ve got to have a band that understands why the Muddy Waters band in the ’50s was the killer version of blues. Most modern blues bands play such a hackneyed version of what makes those original records. The Fabulous Thunderbirds were a band that really nailed it. I said, ‘You know what? I’ve got to go down and play with those guys.’ We had such an affinity for what makes those songs sound so authentic. I loved that I got to do that song in Austin.”